“I know about homelessness,” said Donnie who struggled with it “on and off” for 10 years.
“I am an alcoholic, but I was always able and willing to work. I always worked and tried not to look homeless. My life might have been easier if I had quit drinking all together, but drinking is not the main reason I was homeless.”
Unfortunately, Donnie developed a medical issue that has resulted in him not being able to do the physical type of work he did in the past. He currently receives disability benefits; a situation Donnie hopes is temporary.
Since the disability is preventing Donnie from getting a job, he chose to further his education. He is about to complete his junior year at the University of Louisville where he is pursuing a degree in social work. “I couldn’t work so I decided to go back to school to get a degree that will help me get a job that will eventually get me out of Section 8.”
Donnie just became a Section 8 housing client a couple of months ago. That means he did so well in St. John Center’s permanent supportive housing program that he is now able to manage his own life without the assistance of a case manager. Nonetheless, Donnie would prefer to have a job that pays well enough that he will need no housing assistance at all.
Once he has an undergraduate degree Donnie would like to enroll in U of L’s accelerated master’s program in social work. “I have a population I’d like to help. Since I have been a substance abuser I have a lot of knowledge and experience that I can pass along to others,” said Donnie.
He knows well the challenges faced by the homeless and marginalized. “I would like to advocate for people who have fallen through the cracks. They often find themselves in an abyss that they can’t escape,” he said. “The working poor don’t have a chance. A lot of companies use temporary labor and even if you have a job, there is no free medical insurance anymore. Rent is high and rooming houses are often dangerous. Interest rates are very high for poor people who have a bad credit rating or have never used credit.”
Although he was first housed by St. John Center in January 2010 Donnie has been in his current apartment for a couple of years now. He credits housing for turning his life around. “It gives me peace of mind and privacy. Housing helped a lot with me getting into college. When you have an apartment you can lock your door to keep people from bothering you. You know you are safe.”
While Donnie has always enjoyed the support of his family, having an apartment has been good for that relationship. They are able to visit him at his apartment. Donnie is a college hoops fan and he has enjoyed watching his grandson play basketball for his high school team. Donnie is also a grandfather and will soon be a great grandfather.
There’s no telling what Donnie’s life will look like in 10 more years.
St. John Center was just a toddler when the first Homeless Benefit Ball was held in March 1990. The Ball was held for six consecutive years and added around $45,000 to the organization’s coiffures at a time when funding was scarce.
“St. John Center was one of the most cherished resources for the beneficiaries with the history (of homelessness), the day program, and the numbers they served annually,” said Joe Steier, who along with then co-workers Chris Mueller and John Reinhart created the event.
The Homeless Benefit Ball was born during a business trip to Chicago, IL in 1989. On that trip, and others to large cities, Steier, Mueller and Reinhart noticed a significant number of people living on the streets. They wondered if Louisville had a similar displaced population. When they discovered it did, they chose to do something about it.
“We decided to have a fundraiser to help raise awareness and to raise some funds,” Mueller explained. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” said Reinhart. “We were so bold we thought we could eliminate it (homelessness) all together,” added Steier.
The success of the Homeless Benefit Ball was due to the talented people the trio recruited to bring the project to life. “We had several very creative people on our committee,” said Mueller. “The three of us teamed up with folks like Tonya York, Rose Walker, Tom Herndon, and Eric Wiegel in order to make the first Homeless Benefit Ball a reality.”
Also involved in planning the Ball were: Rhonda Allgeier, Arnie Brouillard (SJC development director), Barb Herold, Jana Motheral, Jill Schmitt, Doug Stern, George Timmering Jr., and Ron Wilder.
Held at a variety of popular venues (Executive Inn, Hurstbourne Convention Center, Kentucky Center for the Arts, Galt House East, Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center) attendance at the black tie event more than doubled from 300 to 650 during its life. The crowds enjoyed live music, dancing, food, raffles, and door prizes.
The Ball received considerable publicity including articles in The Courier-Journal and Business First, and was even featured on a popular NBC morning television show. “I remember when we made The Today Show and everyone at St. John Center was so proud,” Steier said.
The experience had a profound impact on several of those involved. “A lot of us that were involved with this event took it to heart and wound up being on boards or volunteering. It was a neat experience. We had a lot of fun. We learned a lot. And we truly enjoyed spending time together,” said Reinhart.
Wiegel, Stern and Mueller eventually became members of the St. John Center board of directors and volunteers at the shelter. Mueller has been a volunteer for 25 years.
“If I was going to spend time raising money I wanted to volunteer,” said Mueller. “Sue (Speed, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless) recommended I talk to Sister Mary Kathleen Sheehan at St John Center and I have been a volunteer ever since.”
Reinhart also has a strong connection to SJC. His father Phil is one of the shelter’s longest serving volunteers and was a board member for many years. “My dad has been volunteering at St. John Center for almost 30 years. He led by example with his actions. When you grow up in that environment you feel called to help others. There but for the grace of God go I,” Reinhart said.
“St John keeps me grounded and appreciative of my blessings and family,” Mueller said. “The overall attitude of the staff and clients also keeps me coming back. The staff treats the guys with dignity and respect. I believe we are here to serve each other and I’m thankful I get a chance to do that at St John Center,” said Mueller.
“I learned three great lessons, first, you can have bold dreams and think big and it is possible to make it happen. Second, people will rally around causes that are bigger than you. And third, the corporate citizenship in Louisville is beyond unbelievable.” Steier said.
Due to sponsorships and donations from area businesses and individuals, 85 cents of every dollar raised from the Homeless Benefit Ball was donated to St. John Center and several other local charities serving the homeless.
“We found out we could take our passion and do something meaningful and valuable using our time, talents and treasure that would give back to our community,” Reinhart said. “We could be a conduit and a catalyst to raise awareness and provide some resources to people on the front line of homelessness.”
Housing has been a blessing for Sherman, a devoted family man. His family has also benefited from Sherman’s apartment. It provides a place for his four children and 17 grandchildren (ages one to 18) to gather.
“Sherman has been freed from the daily stress of not knowing where he will sleep,” said SJC housing counselor Ashley Bradley, who assisted him in qualifying for housing. “Sherman is family oriented and has put the needs of his kids and grandkids before his own on numerous occasions. All he wanted was a home where his grandkids could come and spend time with their grandpa.”
“It takes a lot of worries away,” said Sherman of his home. “The grandkids like to come and stay with me.“
Other than discounted rent and Ashley’s assistance, Sherman’s progress is the result of his own labor. “I want to make it on my own,” he said. To that end Sherman is able to pay bills and rent thanks to a job he has held at Bearno’s Pizza for nearly four years.
If Sherman has his way, he will become a homeowner. “I just want to have a nice place where my family can get together,” he said.
St. John Center has always been an important resource for homeless veterans. Even though the number of veterans utilizing the shelter has been steadily declining, more than 330 former military men visited SJC during the last fiscal year.
Sherman is one of those veterans.
During a 10-year-military career, he became a squad leader in charge of nine other soldiers. A member of the 2nd Armored Division, he was trained to drive an armored personnel carrier which could transport 16 men. He spent 13 months in Korea, eventually earning the rank of Staff Sergeant.
“I loved the military,” said Sherman. “I learned a lot while I was in the Army. I learned how to take orders and accept responsibility.”
Although he had his first drink as a 16-year-old, alcohol did not become a problem in Sherman’s life until he left the Army. Despite battling alcoholism, he was able to work most of the time, but the disease eventually left him homeless.
Sherman first came to St. John Center in July, 2001. It was more than 14 years before he had a place to call home. A tragedy convinced Sherman to make housing a priority in his life and last July he moved into an apartment.
It was the death of St. John Center client Kenneth Winfield on a frigid February night that made Sherman vow he would not suffer the same fate.
“I saw Kenny the night he died. I asked him and his lady if they were going to a shelter because the wind chill was way below zero. He said they were going to stay outside and just ride it out,” explained Sherman. “The next day I found out he had died. I made the decision right then and there to get the help I needed to find housing. I did not want to wind up like Kenny.”
Thanks to a grant from the Younger Woman’s Club of Louisville up to 24 men in St. John Center’s Permanent Supported Housing program are learning to make simple, inexpensive and well-balanced meals in their own kitchens.
Nancy Russman, an award winning chef and director of the Culinary Arts Department at Jefferson Community and Technical College, oversees the program. The goal of the six-week course is to teach the men skills, and give them the knowledge, to cook for themselves. Foods used will be easily accessible to the men and healthy options will be presented.
“I am having a ball teaching this class. It’s obvious to me that the guys want to learn, mostly because they like to eat,” said Chef Nancy. “I get good questions too. One guy wanted to know why there is a ‘broil spot on the oven control,” he said. “I have never seen a recipe that says anything but bake! Got to love them!”
The men seem to be enjoying the classes too. “I’ve picked up some good pointers. I’ve already used some of the recipes I got here,” said Willard. “I’m learning my way around the kitchen so I know I will make some more dishes from class.”
“I like the idea of a cooking class. I want to learn how to cook things for myself in my own kitchen,” Bruce explained. “I know how to make hash browns now. They are really good.”
Topics covered in the classes include basic cooking techniques, proper handling and storage of food, cooking safety, and clean-up. Simple recipes will be provided that are tailored to a food stamp budget. Each man who attends all six classes will receive a $10 Kroger gift card to help him purchase the foods he will need to make meals in his own home.
Halloween is the ideal time for an article about St. John Center housing client Derek because he is the proud owner of two black cats. Contrary to popular belief, Derek is convinced his furry friends, whom he named Mickey and Minnie, keep him safe.
“I learned that cats were considered the keepers of the dead in Egypt so I figured they wouldn’t let anything happen to me. They keep the boogie man away,” he explained.
According to Wright Gordon, Derek’s case manager at St. John Center, his client is predisposed to watch over others which is evident in the way he cares for his cats. “Derek never ceases to amaze me with his insight, truthfulness, and desire to take care of those he loves,” said Wright. “He is a proud pet owner of two cats which he rescued and treats like family.”
Derek’s quiet demeanor and compassion for animals may be somewhat surprising given his childhood. His father was murdered when Derek was 8, but he had already become a foster child by then.
Now 27, Derek’s formative years were spent in a series of foster homes and facilities for troubled youth. He alleges that he suffered physical abuse at the hands of the staff at one of the youth homes. “Some of the people there took techniques they were taught to restrain us when we were a danger to ourselves and/or others and used them to torture us until we did what they wanted us to do.”
By age 15, Derek had moved into Boys Haven where he eventually was moved into a HUD housing program at the facility. Derek moved into his current apartment in March 2009.
Derek admits to having difficulty trusting people, so the thing he likes most about having his own apartment is, “the privacy. I like to keep to myself.” However, he was quick to say that he would be quick to help a neighbor in need.
One of the few people to have earned Derek’s trust is Wright. “I would call Wright a friend and that is a word I don’t use often. We can confide things that I wouldn’t tell others. Wright and I trust each other. We respect each other,” said Derek.
For the past couple of months Derek has been assisting SJC plant manager Patrick DeVore in cleaning the Center a couple of days a week. “I’m grateful to have this job. I feel like I’m part of a team. I get to help people. I have other people I can rely on and that is something I’ve never known before.”
Derek graduated from a local high school and attended college with the idea of becoming a veterinary assistant. Although he doesn’t have the financial means right now, Derek would eventually like to return to complete his degree so he can work with the animals he loves.
Overall, Derek is pleased with his life. “I am satisfied with my life. I’m not greedy.”
Wright is confident that his client’s attitude will continue to help him thrive. “I appreciate his wit and unique sense of humor that catches you off guard, and leaves you laughing for hours,” Wright said. ”Derek is a survivor, a man who takes pride in not wishing for a better life, but making it happen!”